Home > Film > Ponyo – A boy’s responsibility

Ponyo – A boy’s responsibility

Ah, Studio Ghibli. I am quite glad to have finally gotten to see their most recent film, Ponyo, and it brought some very interesting thoughts to mind.

Ponyo is a touching story about a young boy and a fish, with many themes about fathers. It shows the importance of fathers to their children, as well as looking at over-protective fathers.

What I find most interesting about Ponyo is how it portrays child-parent relationships and the behavior of children. Ponyo seems to be reflecting a cultural mindset, which may give it more truth than might be apparent.

What got my attention most was the male lead, the five-year-old Sosuke. He is, without a doubt, the most level headed, collected and responsible five-year-old I have ever seen, and it is that responsibility I want to talk about.

I think this is best illustrated by comparing Sosuke to the main characters of another Ghibli movie, My Neighbor Totoro. In Totoro, the focus is on how the two sisters interact with the world of magical spirits, as well as their worrying for the health of their mother. It is largely about how they feel.

In Ponyo, we have a very different story, but with similar themes. It is also about the interaction with the world of nature and magic. However, the focus is far less on Sosuke’s interaction (i.e. play) with the magical world than it is about his dealing with what comes out of it, like Ponyo and all the problems she causes. It is much less about how he feels and more about what he does.

This difference can even be seen within the cast of Ponyo. Ponyo herself spends most of her time on land learning to interact with it, experiencing it with wonder, while Sosuke is there to keep an eye on her and lead the way. Once again, what matters is how she feels and what he does.

I think this reflects an interesting viewpoint on how little boys and little girls work and live. Sosuke is shown as stepping up, taking charge and being responsible for those he cares about and for his own actions. He worries about keeping his promises and takes responsibility for caring for Ponyo without a single thought to the contrary.

American media is so bloated with girl power and political correctness gone wrong that it is rare to see a boy as anything buy a punching bag (both verbal and physical), so it is interesting to see a different take on ‘what little boys are made of’, showing them as capable of understanding the consequences of their actions and taking responsibility.

More than that, however, I am always interested by takes on traditional gender roles, which is just what this is, and this film is made all the more intriguing by the fact that its creator, Hayao Miyazaki, is a self-proclaimed feminist, and so seeing an exploration of male responsibility and leadership from him makes it all the more telling.

I think American media has made many of us forget how little boys think, but this film gets back in touch with that, hopefully reminding us how not all traditional gender roles are totally learned, that some behavior is natural and that such natural tendencies should be nurtured and encouraged, in both boys and girls.

The eagerness with which young boys seem to assume roles of leadership and to take on duties of protecting others is well documented and Ponyo’s portrayal of such behavior rings with the note of truth. That is not to say that girls are naturally followers. Far from it (just ask my sisters). However, despite how the media ignores this, little boys do seem to naturally gravitate towards roles of leadership and protecting. Maybe not more than girls, but at the very least in their own unique way.

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  1. March 5, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    Nice, well measured review. Appreciated it a lot. And wonder if you realize how much its male characterization reflects your young boyhood too … steady, level headed, kind, watchful,loyal to your sisters … noble young man. But we always have wondered when you are going to burst out with a little gleeful, spontaneous craziness! You certainly have earned it … the joy that is … not just baring heavy responsibilities.

  2. AQ
    March 7, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    I look forward to seeing this movie!

    My critique of the day: you say “not all traditional gender roles are totally learned, that some behavior is natural and that such natural tendencies should be nurtured and encouraged”. But what is this based on in the movie or in real life? How could you even tell if such behavior was learned or not?

    I am always uncomfortable when people talk about “natural” (as opposed to learned) sex differences, since as far as I can see, there is no evidence that really shows some sort of biological difference between boys and girls with regard to general personality characteristics such as being “nurturing” or “protective” or a “leader”. Admittedly, if these biological differences existed (which seems quite unlikely to me), they would be very hard to detect, because there are no people you can study who weren’t raised in a society that has been teaching them gender roles since they were born. Of course, that’s the big problem with any claims about natural / inherent behavioral differences between sexes, they’re all based on a hopelessly biased sample.

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